15 February 2012

Canoeing the Congo from source to sea

Central Africa’s mighty Congo River is the eighth longest, and the deepest river in the world, its flow rate second only to the Amazon. From its source to the Atlantic Ocean is a formidable 2,922 miles. In October 2008, adventurer Phil Harwood and his canoe set out on the world’s first source to sea navigation of the Congo River, in what would turn out to be an extraordinary tale of strength and courage as he battled his way through swamps, dense tropical rainforest, numerous waterfalls and rapids and came face to face with man-eating crocodiles. He also faced the endemic corruption of one of the poorest and most violent nations in the world. Harwood has since written a book about his intrepid experiences on the river, Canoeing the Congo, which makes for a thrilling read. PINCH loves adventurous spirits and so we caught up with Harwood to talk shotguns, canoes, wilderness, rocky escarpments and the many inspirational people he met along the way.

First of all, why the Congo? It goes without saying that the river runs through some tough and controversial parts of Africa.

I love wilderness and I love adventure. The Congo has both in abundance. The idea first came to me when I drove a landrover from London to Capetown with some friends. Without a doubt the best part of the trip was driving through Zaire as it was known back then, terrible roads, great people despite mind-boggling hardship and serious rainforest. I laid eyes on the Congo River and the idea popped into my head to one day paddle it from source to sea.

It must have been a gruelling journey at times, why in a canoe?

Canoeing is my thing and I teach outdoor skills for a living. There’s also something very special about an extended wilderness canoe journey, it becomes a way of life and you get a great insight into the country and its people living off of the river. It’s also very cheap.

How did the landscape change along the way as you canoed from source to sea? Was there one country or place in particular that you fell in love with?

The landscape began with bushland, not unlike Kenya, interspersed with swamps laced with inpenetrable papyrus grass. As the river left Zambia into the Congo, golden grass covered hills were peppered with ochre coloured rocky escarpments with craggy cliffs. Sometimes these formed towering cliffs flanking the river with waterfalls and rapids broken by stretchs of millpond flat sections. Finally steaming virgin rainforest took over for the second half of the journey. I fell in love with the first few hundred miles after leaving Zambia, totally wild.

You met many people on your journey, what were the people of the Congo like?

Most people were an absolute inspiration, especially the fishermen in the more remote parts. Ignored by their governments in a country racked by war and foreign exploitation, they retained their dignity and honour and oozed character. On one strech known as ‘The Abbatoir’ due to past cannibalism and current criminal activity, I hired four brothers with a shotgun as bodyguards. We floated and paddled together for five days and nights on the river, and I’ll never forget Valatay, Leonardo, Maurice and John, they were great travelling companions. I also travelled for a time with Janvier, a village priest who spoke four languages. He put his life at risk in helping me and he was a truly great guy.

You must have some brilliant stories from your trip, what would you say was your most memorable moment?

Being chased by eight angry locals in two dugout canoes, screaming for money. They eventually caught up with me and I was forced to morph into a raging madman, waving around like a lunatic. Fortunately I scared them off, and they backed down.

What was the biggest difference between you and the local people you met on your journey?

Choice. I could come and go as I pleased, and return to Britain anytime I wanted. Having a British passport meant I would never starve or be homeless. They had enough on their plate just trying to survive. Food, shelter, clean water and health were their greatest priorities.

Did you learn anything from them and vice versa?

I learnt that I am incredibly lucky to be born in Britain. I will endeavour to never complain about anything ever again. If I dont accomplish my goals in life, it’s because I didnt want them enough to put in the work required. No excuses. It saddens me that more people in Britain don’t realise how lucky they are and how much opportunity they have. I would like to think that they learnt from me, that not all white people think themselves superior.

Would you return to Africa again and where would you love to go?

I’d return to Africa at the drop of a hat, and I’d especially like to return to the Congo and to explore other rivers around the world.

For more information about the book and to watch the accompanying film visit Harwood’s website.

Take A River Expedition:

If you’ve been inspired by Harwood’s intrepid adventure story, why not take to the water on your own river journey. For some inspiration take a look at Epic Tomato’s top five river expeditions from the highlands of Costa Rica to White Nile in the heights of Uganda.